Hayden White borrows the title for The Practical Past from philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who used the term to describe the accessible material and literary-artistic artifacts that individuals and institutions draw on for guidance in quotidian affairs. The Practical Past, then, forms both a summa of White’s work to be drawn upon and a new direction in his thinking about the writing of history.
White’s monumental Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) challenged many of the commonplaces of professional historical writing and wider assumptions about the ontology of history itself. It formed the basis of his argument that we can never recover “what actually happened”in the past and cannot really access even material culture in context. Forty years on, White sees “professional history" as falling prey to narrow specialization, and he calls upon historians to take seriously the practical past of explicitly “artistic” works, such as novels and dramas, and literary theorists likewise to engage historians.
One: The Practical Past
Two: Truth and Circumstance: What (if anything) can properly be said about the Holocaust?
Three: The Historical Event
Four: Contextualism and Historical Understanding
Five: Historical Discourse and Literary Theory
Appendix: Narration, Narrative, Narrativization
The Practical Past is a magisterial achievement and a “must-read” for historians, critical theorists, students of rhetoric and literature, and interested citizens inside and outside the human sciences."—Daniel O’Hara, author of Narrating Demons, Transformative Texts: Rereading Genius in Mid-Century Modern Fictional Memoir and The Art of Reading as a Way of Life: On Nietzsche’s Truth (Northwestern, 2009).
The Practical Past is a brilliant, eminently practical, and bracingly polemical book that gathers five recent essays by Hayden White and brings much helpful clarity to the vexed question of the relation between history and fiction. White’s primary target over many years has been the assumption some historians make that history writing should be a scientific enterprise primarily for other historians. White persuasively argues that some form of fictionalizing is always present in any history writing, even in the most “scientific” marshaling of facts.—J. Hillis Miller, author of The Conflagration of Community: Fiction Before and After Auschwitz (2012) and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and English at University of California, Irvine
Hayden White once again proves to be so much more thoughtful and precise than his critics, showing us the difference between the fictional and the literary, the artistic and the aesthetic, in historical accounts of the past. The Practical Past opens up a way of thinking history outside and against those professional norms that currently govern its presentation, insisting that history persists as a set of practical presuppositions that are only partially known to us, accessible by rhetorical and literary means that give them weight and importance. Once again contesting the specific historical notion that "facts" must be opposed to "fiction", and so history must be shorn of rhetoric, White marks out a path for critical historical thinking for our times. Making clear how the events of the past are selectively arranged by those who seek to narrate historical truth, he insists that events are indisputable and that they are invariably interpreted. This beautifully written volume resumes and clarifies many of White's most trenchant and powerful arguments, issuing a challenge to the reader to proceed as much as possible with erudition, clarity, and critical moral passion. This is an invaluable and brilliant study.--Judith Butler, UC Berkeley